“Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” It’s a motto, plastered on mugs, t-shirts and posters, that a few recent Batmen have taken to heart.
Last December, longtime voice actor of the Caped Crusader Kevin Conroy played a live action version of Bruce Wayne in The CW’s ambitious small-screen crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths. Just two months ago, it was revealed that Michael Keaton would once again be suiting up as Gotham’s protector in Andy Muschietti’s upcoming The Flash movie. An adaptation of 2011’s Flashpoint comic, it will see Ezra Miller’s titular hero encounter alternate versions of supers in different dimensions via the Speed Force (the cosmic energy field which grants the speedster his power). And to the surprise of Batman fans everywhere, it was announced earlier this week that Ben Affleck would be joining Keaton in reprising the role of the Dark Knight in the same movie, as Warner Bros. and DC get set to journey into the multiverse. It is not news I ever thought I would be excited to hear.
I was pumped for 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The trailers had me hyped, and the prospect of the World’s Finest united on screen together made my inner (and outer) geek smile. At last, reality was going to deliver on the Batman V Superman poster we saw in Will Smith’s I Am Legend. The prophecy that had been foretold was coming true!
But instead of a satisfying and heroic new chapter in the DCEU, we got a movie that was dumb and nihilistic with a Batman who was a killing machine that said things like: “If we believe there is even a one per cent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty” (that’s really, really stupid, Bruce, and the fact that you’re quoting Dick Cheney doesn’t make it smarter). Far from a recognisable version of my favourite superhero, it was more akin to watching The Punisher in a Batsuit.
Justice League’s Batfleck was different, but not better. Some of the ultra-darkness was gone, but it was replaced by forced humour that felt more painful than funny. It was also clear that Affleck looked less engaged than he was in Batman v Superman, perhaps the result of a frustrating shoot in which Joss Whedon replaced Zack Snyder as director midway through production. When Affleck announced that he was stepping away from both directing a solo Batman movie and the role itself in 2017 – a year which also saw him admitted to alcohol rehab and file for divorce from Jennifer Garner – I wasn’t broken up about the prospect of never seeing Batfleck on screen again.
But months later, I revisited the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman. It confirmed something which I had always implicitly known: while the movie has many problems, Affleck is not one of them. The sequence in which Clark Kent first meets Bruce Wayne is especially indicative of this, the wry smile that flashes across Affleck’s face betraying the sense of fun beneath all the brooding and world-weariness. Just as Henry Cavill is more than capable of delivering a Superman performance for the ages, so too was Affleck well cast as Batman. But they both lacked the material needed to produce it, and a director who understood what made those characters special.
Hopefully Affleck will now have that in Muschietti (It: Chapter Two, Mama) and The Flash, and he’s in a markedly better place than he was in 2017. He deservedly earned critical acclaim for his performance in Finding The Way Back, an effective sports drama in which he plays a basketball coach with booze problems, channelling his own real-life issues into the role. And he’ll soon be getting back to writing and directing too, having been tapped to helm a film about the making of classic Jack Nicholson noir Chinatown.
It’s likely we’ll see him don the cape and the cowl one more time before that movie hits screens, and already the signs are encouraging for this new outing. In the interview that accompanied the news of Batfleck’s return, Muschietti talked about Batman’s vulnerability and Affleck’s ability to bring that to the surface. The V word is not something many would think to associate with Batfleck, so this already feels like a step in an interesting direction. Muschietti also assured us that the interaction between Barry Allen (The Flash’s secret identity) and Affleck’s Wayne will “bring an emotional level we haven’t seen before”, a bond that will no doubt be strengthened by the fact that they both lost their mothers to murder. It’s a smart way to use Batman in the context of The Flash’s story, and will let fans see the infamous vigilante in a new light.
It should also give Affleck a chance to leave a more positive stamp on the character. Justice League was a disappointment to the fans, Warner Bros., and everyone involved. The upcoming Snyder Cut may go some way to rectifying it, but a good showing in The Flash could be the swansong that Batfleck needs, and deserves.